There’s a lot going on in Israel. Due to indiscriminate rocket fire from Palestinian Islamic Jihad in Gaza, schools in many Israeli cities, including Tel Aviv, were closed on Tuesday. Some have already been closed for Wednesday. The rockets target anyone and anything, and give everyone, young or old, the same amount of time, usually under one minute, to seek cover. Thanks to the shelters and Iron Dome, an air defense system which today had an interception success rate of 90 percent per the IDF, these rockets typically result in few Israeli deaths. But the collective psychological trauma of constantly being under fire is impossible to measure.
This latest round of rockets came in retaliation for Israel’s early morning assassination of Baha Abu al-Ata, Islamic Jihad’s Gaza commander. Israeli intelligence blamed Abu al-Ata for much of the recent rocket attacks — an uneasy ceasefire is meant to exist between Israel and Hamas — and said he had been planning a major terrorist attack against Israel, involving cross-border infiltration into Israeli villages and snipers at the border. Foreign media have been slow to emphasize that Israel’s attack was a targeted assassination of a terrorist, which destroyed the room in which he slept but did not collapse the apartment block in which he lived. Palestinian Islamic Jihad’s rockets are launched with the intention of doing as much damage to as many people as possible, whether men, women or children.
The political situation is complex. Israel has been in political upheaval since the September 17 elections. Initially, Israel’s president Reuven Rivlin tasked Netanyahu, the current prime minister, with forming a governing coalition. He failed, so Rivlin then turned to Benny Gantz of the centrist Blue & White party. But he too is struggling to cobble together a coalition to actually govern the country. Gantz has just over a week left to form a coalition, or Israel will face an unprecedented third election in the space of a year.
On Tuesday, Gantz, a former army chief of staff, insisted that the killing of Abu al-Ata and the rocket fire won’t affect his political plans. Most political pundits in Israel place this assessment somewhere between naive and delusional. During this kind of military escalation, despite any political motivations to do so, Gantz can’t and won’t be critical of the prime minister. Instead, he is forced to support his decisions, thereby bolstering Netanyhu’s image as the country’s true leader, while diminishing his own chances at one day grasping that role. Other party members were more realistic, with a Blue and White official telling the Times of Israel that ‘no one wants elections, no wants war, but absolutely no wants elections during a war,’ and that ‘whether it’s on purpose or not, the game has changed.’
Prior to this military escalation, Gantz’s strategy was to form a minority coalition with the mostly Arab Joint List. But Ayman Odeh, leader of the Joint List, was quick to accuse Netanyahu of starting a war. Despite President Rivlin’s insistence that the timing of Abu al-Ata’s assassination was motivated by intelligence warnings and security concerns (and not coalition strategies) Odeh attributed it to Netanyahu’s political machinations. The timing is definitely interesting, with the hard-right Naftali Bennet formally beginning his tenure as defense minister Tuesday. This move was widely seen as a renewed effort by Bibi to ensure right-wing support as the coalition conversation continues.
In this tense state of affairs, most Israelis would prefer not to get a Gantz government that partners with political parties hostile to the security rationale of an assassination of an Iranian-funded Islamist bent on Israel’s destruction. Instead, a majority of Israeli voters would probably prefer a unity government in which Gantz and Bibi rotate the job of prime minister.
So Netanyahu’s hand is strengthened, and Gantz has lost room to maneuver. Bibi’s critics — and not just Odeh — are quick to claim that politics was the prime reason behind the assassination’s timing. I don’t believe this is true. Israel works hard to ensure that civilian casualties are minimal; groups like Hamas and PIJ know this and use it to their advantage, often hiding wanted terrorists, munitions or other key resources in places where civilians congregate. It’s therefore rare for Israel to have an opportunity for a relatively clean strike. Concern for human life, not politics, played the greatest role in the timing of the attack.
From a military perspective, it’s crucial to recognize that this latest escalation is not a battle between Hamas and Israel. Locally, there is a largely cold war between PIJ and Hamas for control of Gaza and the Palestinian liberation movement.
Regionally, this is part of Iran’s proxy war against Israel. While Hamas has been running Gaza, PIJ has been amassing weapons and has led the recent attacks against Israel. Iran’s support for PIJ is increasingly troubling to Israel. Neighbors who seek your destruction are frightening, but neighbors financed, armed and trained by an aggressive regional power-broker are life-threatening. As PIJ ramps up its attacks against Israeli civilians, the Netanyahu government will have to decide the extent to which they want to intervene in Gaza. Should PIJ be truly weakened, however, Hamas will doubtlessly pick up the role of aggressor, so any intervention in the strip has to be a calculated balancing act.